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Boom and Bust | Australia vs. Facebook

Tony looks at who won the Australia vs. Facebook saga and why it matters. He is joined by David Clement and Dr. Sinclair Davidson.

Watch the video here.

Facebook, Australia and the pitfalls of online regulation

“Facebook has re-friended Australia.” Those were the words of Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to a gaggle of reporters in Canberra this week, in an ever-so-slightly smug declaration of victory in the regulatory battle between his government and the embattled social media giant.

His statement came after Facebook, having kicked up an almighty storm – and generated a great deal of bad press for itself in the process – eventually gave in and backed down from its sudden ban of all news content for Australian users. It followed Google’s example and entered into negotiations with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, among others, begrudgingly agreeing to pay to host their content on its platform, as mandated by the new Australian law.

This situation is profoundly troubling. The core of the dispute is the new law spelling out how tech giants like Facebook and Google, which host external news links on their platforms, must negotiate with the providers of that content.

Anybody can see that the idea of government-mandated negotiation doesn’t make much logical sense. If two consenting parties have a mutually-beneficial agreement where one facilitates the sharing of the other’s content, where is the role of the government to step in and demand that money changes hands?

It’s not clear what problem the Australian Government believes is being solved here. It has intervened in the market arbitrarily, making one side very happy and the other very miserable. But to what end? Worryingly, this appears to be just the latest front in a troubling new trend of governments arbitrarily meddling in an industry where innovation and productivity are booming. Sadly, governments are often inclined to do this.

California, for instance, recently won the right in court to implement its harsh net neutrality rules, the first state to come close to replicating the ill-fated far-reaching Obama-era law. Meanwhile, the European Union has declared its intention to keep tabs on big tech with a raft of new policy ideas, including annual check-ins with the European Commission about what steps companies are taking to “tackle illegal and harmful content”.

There is no easy answer to the question of how we should go about regulating the online market. The UK Government is at something of a crossroads in this area. It is currently consulting on the parameters of its new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) with the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

When considering the role of the DMU, the British Government would do well to learn from the mistakes of others from around the world and seek to prioritise the interests of consumers, rather than coming down rigidly on one side of the fence and cowing to the demands of one enormous lobbying operation or another, as the Australian Government appears to have done.

The DMU, in the words of its architects and proponents, will be “a pro-competition regime”, which will mean that “consumers will be given more choice and control over how their data is used and small businesses will be able to better promote their products online”. Those stated aims – making life easier for users and paving the way for the Steve Jobs of tomorrow – seem wholly positive.

But the Government briefing also says that the DMU will implement “a new statutory code of conduct” in order to “help rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms”. It is too early to say whether our Government is planning to go down the same road as Australia’s, but that rhetoric sounds ominous, to say the least.

There is certainly a vacancy for the DMU to fill, but the underdog it should be propping up is not Rupert Murdoch. There is a difficult balance to be struck between maintaining an environment where the existing tech giants are able to continue innovating and elevating our standard of living, while also fostering a truly competitive environment by removing obstacles for their smaller – but growing – competitors, along with new start-ups. That is the fine line the Government must tread.

Originally published here.

Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

Originally published here.

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